Paul Hamilton, 32, is a flight paramedic in Washington, D.C. His wife, Melanie, 37, is a nurse at VCU Health System in Richmond.
The couple, who live in Caroline County, both have jobs that can’t be performed from home and are considered essential personnel. And with coronavirus’s potential to overwhelm the health system, both stand to become even more essential.
They also have a 3-year-old daughter, Harper.
The preschooler currently attends Skipwith Academy in Ashland, but as schools close around the country in efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus, the Hamiltons worry about who would care for Harper if the school closes.
“They haven’t come forthright out and said that [it might close], but in not so many words, they have put out that it’s a possibility,” Paul Hamilton said.
He said the school is putting “social distancing” measures in place, such as not allowing parents inside to drop off their children. But governors in other states, such as Massachusetts and Ohio, have ordered day cares to close or have signaled that they will close.
“If they close the day cares because they’re seeing a spike in kids ... I just don’t know,” Hamilton said. “It is pretty stressful. Because my wife and I are essential personnel. Critical patients don’t stop happening.”
Working parents across the region are scrambling to find child care for their children with schools now closed—and child care providers are scrambling to provide that care while following regulations for preventing the spread of the virus and attempting to keep their businesses afloat.
“I have never in my life imagined going through something like this,” said Leah Spruill, owner and director of Always Sonshine Learn and Play in Spotsylvania. “Everybody is in a frenzy, and I would use the word ‘frenzy.’ It’s just a really challenging time emotionally for everybody. Everybody is worried, especially if you are on the front lines—and child care centers are on the front lines.”
According to the Virginia Department of Social Services, roughly 1,200 of the state’s 7,800 child care centers have closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam asked all parents who are not “essential” workers to care for their children at home to free up space at child care centers for the children of health care professionals, first responders, grocery stores and pharmacy employees and workers in the manufacturing and food processing industries.
“Nursing is a huge sector that we are concerned about [providing child care for], in addition to our first responders, our emergency workers and power and water workers,” said Carol Clark, executive director of Smart Beginnings Rappahannock Area, a coalition of public and private agencies and businesses that advocate for early childhood education. “We’re seeing towns, cities and counties asking for child care centers to take employees’ children that are now not in school, that they typically wouldn’t need care for.”
Area child care centers are implementing new policies to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus and attempt to stay open. These include keeping not more than 10 children to a room, taking parents’ and children’s temperatures at drop-off, restricting drop-off and pick-up to the front door only and minimizing the number of parents dropping-off or picking-up at any one time.
“I’m actually working on a letter to parents right now, letting them know we have to make tough decisions,” said Amanda Short, owner and director of the Alexander School of Early Learning in Spotsylvania. “So we’re trying to take children of emergency personnel and then parents that are actually still working and have to venture out. Then we’ll look at taking kids of those working-from-home, if there are still spots available.”
Short said enrollment at her school has dropped by more than half since the COVID-19 pandemic began, from 125 children to about 50. Spruill said she had 27 families drop out this week, out of about 83 total enrolled.
Short said she is offering families that are asked to keep their children home unlimited weeks where they are charged half-price tuition. Short said she plans to keep her center open, unless told otherwise by state or federal government.
“It’s really hard, though, being a small business and just having to make sure we can still cover staffing and all that stuff,” she said. “And we have teachers who want to keep working because they need the money.”
Spruill is “plunging ahead” despite the loss of income to her business, but said she will have to make a decision at the end of this week about whether she can stay open to provide care for families that need it.
“As a small business and sole proprietor, it hits home so hard, so quick,” she said. “But even if we ... have to close after that, I feel like we just helped some 50-odd families with one more week of care.”
Many working parents who are not considered essential still must work to pay their bills, and finding care for their children is stressful.
Brittany Hibbs and her husband, Andrew, of Stafford County, have three children, ages 10, 9 and 5. Andrew Hibbs works on a farm. Brittany Hibbs works at a company that provides behavioral therapy for children with autism, and though her work has closed its doors during the COVID-19 crisis, she said she is recovering from surgery and needs help caring for her children.
Neither Brittany nor her husband get paid if they are not at work.
Brittany Hibbs said her parents and her in-laws are helping with child care, but she worries about putting them at risk, since they are older with underlying health conditions and therefore part of the population most vulnerable to severe forms of COVID-19.
“We’re very on edge on what are we going to do next, if this continues for months,” she said. “The copay for my surgery is well into the four digits. Without us working, we can’t afford that.
“Even if my job does open back up, we still have the children to worry about. It’s like, how do we keep going with the day-to-day?”